Karen Wong, Partner, Milbank, Tweed Hadley & McCloy, LLP
How long have you been working for your current company?
Since June 1990.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
After I graduated from law school in 1986, I joined Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue as an associate lawyer. At Jones Day, I worked on the first project finance transaction in Los Angeles – a 1987 transaction involving the financing of Mission Energy’s Camino Energy Project (a cogeneration facility in Carson, California). Jones Day represented the Agent Bank on that transaction. After that deal, I then worked on a series of project financing transactions for both lenders and sponsors, including one in which I represented three syndicate bank members in a syndicated financing of the AES Barbers Point Cogeneration Project in Oahu, Hawaii, in which Milbank represented the Agent Bank. I was recruited to interview with Milbank and joined the firm as an associate attorney in June 1990 and have been with Milbank ever since. I became a partner in October 1996.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Becoming a productive and successful partner at Milbank has been my proudest professional achievement so far. Being elected an equity partner at Milbank is a challenging endeavor, and being so elected and successfully maintaining both my practice over the past 16 years (despite being an Asian-American female and cancer survivor) and my 22-plus-year marriage is a feat of which I am most proud.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
One of the greatest challenges I have is dealing with increased competition from other law firms who are willing to quote low fee caps to get into the deal flow and the high billing rates at a New York-based law firm. Fortunately, we have sophisticated clients who can look beyond mere billing rates to focus on cost effectiveness, overall all-in costs and efficiencies that we can offer as a result of our deal expertise and experience, as well as our lean staffing approach to deals.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
I have attained a work-life balance that is a comfortable equilibrium for me but certainly others may find unsatisfactory for them. I sleep less than the average person (3-4 hours a night), and because of this, I have more hours in the day to get my work done and to spend time with my family. I try to make it home in time for dinner with my family every weeknight whenever I am not traveling on business, and will work early mornings and late nights on weekends to spend quality time with my kids on weekends. My spouse, in-laws and nanny are a large part of my ability to have a work-life balance. Because of their support with family duties, I don’t have to spend time grocery shopping, cooking or doing housekeeping, and I can spend more quality time with my family.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
Early in my career at Jones Day I had several partner mentors (Neal Millard, Richard Shortz and Linda Grant Williams) who provided good training and interesting projects to work on, as well as sound practical advice and practice pointers. When I moved over to Milbank, my partner mentor was Ed Feo with whom I primarily worked as an associate. Ed was instrumental in helping position me to become a partner at Milbank, and without his support and sponsorship it is doubtful I would have been elected as a partner.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
It appears that many corporations have been extremely successful with diversity initiatives such as flex-time, part-time, side tracks and job sharing, whereas law firms have had less success because of the nature of our profession and work. Work hours for certain corporate positions can be more predictable and observed, whereas in a law firm, such is not usually the case, especially for transactional lawyers where work hours can be 24/7. I have found flex-time – allowing lawyers to work from home – to be among the most effective, along with part-time hours for women initially returning from maternity leave.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I have been very fortunate that I have not experienced any significant gender bias in a male-dominated energy industry. I remember one of my very first transactions at Jones Day involved working with a Japanese bank. I was concerned that being Chinese-American and female would be problematic working for native Japanese bankers given history and social practices. The partner in charge of the transaction told me not to worry about any gender or racial bias because I was associated with an internationally recognized law firm, and that the clients should assume that any lawyer assigned to their deal would be competent and qualified to work on their deal. I have heeded that advice ever since.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
Technology advances have made it possible to work seamlessly at home and required less face time and travel time, which is helpful for women with families. There are more women in positions of power internally at law firms and externally at clients.